Finding the cookie
Maybe you have the impression that you have lost the cookie of your childhood, but I am sure it is still there somewhere in your heart. Everything is still there, and if you really want it, you can find it.
- Thich Nhat Hanh 1926–2022 — from Peace is Every Step
Just this week, in a written observation of the profoundly impactful teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, I was reminded of his story of the cookie — a lovely, simple description of his memory of the moments in his childhood when his mother brought him a cookie from the market. It’s an examination of mindfulness, of how children are joyful and mindful because they are not bound by the weight of worry that we have as adults. Children can sit and enjoy a cookie without prejudice; adults have perhaps lost “the cookie of our childhood,” but he tells us that it’s not lost forever.
There is an actual, literal cookie of my childhood, which is particularly poignant now, because the related story is also about my mother and a simpler, more mindful time. One of the grocery stores in my small home town would give kids a free cookie when they stopped by the bakery — I think they even called it a cookie club — and looking back as an adult and an experienced mom of a kid that came shopping with me, the store’s scheme was pure genius: build some good will with moms and give the kids a big round buttery cookie to munch on while mom got the grocery shopping done.
To be clear, this cookie was an absolute outlier of a treat for my brother and me. Mom wasn’t a big treat person — while we certainly weren’t denied sweets, we weren’t allowed to overindulge either, and not every meal had a dessert course. There were always the “not before dinner” regulations around sweets, but for some reason, this grocery store bakery cookie was an exception. We were always allowed to eat the cookie right away, while we walked around with her (or maybe rode in the cart), even if if was before dinner — even if it was right after breakfast — it didn’t matter. The cookie was ours and we got to have it right away, and it felt just as special as a birthday cake or a big bag of Halloween candy. I always ate mine very slowly.
As a mother, I was probably more indulgent about sweets. My son ate well, and we kept it healthy for the most part, but dessert, or small treats while we were out and about, were standard practice. One of my favorite photos of him was taken while he was eating ice cream. He was in third or fourth grade probably, and his school had the entire week of Thanksgiving off — but the school where I worked didn’t. I made the decision to take the extra days off work to spend with him on his break, and we had a blast every day, going to parks, out to lunch, getting ice cream. The day of that photograph is so special to me because of the joy in his face, the spring in his step, everywhere we went and everything we did. I felt free. I lost pay for those extra days, but I have never regretted choosing that precious time and seeing his ice cream face.
Last week I visited my mother in her care facility in St. Louis. The effects of her dementia are even more profound now, and as much as I’d love to ask her to confirm my cookie memories for me, there’s no longer any way she could. I want to write more about what it’s like to talk with her, even if it’s just for me. It’s an experience that is both deeply sad and tremendously fascinating. There is so little sense to her speech most of the time, but she talks almost constantly, and still retains some capacity for interaction and turn-taking in conversation, though she can also seem agitated or sad at times.
One recent manifestation of her changing mental functioning is that she has started singing on demand. If someone asks her to sing a song, she will, almost immediately. When she sings, just as when she speaks, there is no sense to her words, no recognizable song, though there are vague hints of a gospel cadence. As soon as she launches into a tune, she closes her eyes, and the melody she produces is soulful and sweet. She keeps her eyes closed for the whole song, and sings for several minutes at a time. When you watch her sing, it looks like she has gone somewhere far away to find her music. She’s relaxed and peaceful — sometimes as she sings, especially when she sustains a note for a few seconds, her hands float in front of her body in a sort of dance. It’s as if in these musical moments she’s found some peace — that she’s rediscovered the cookie of her childhood. I’d love to believe that even though her mind may have betrayed her, whatever she needs is there in her heart, and she can see it when she closes her eyes and sings.